Drying for Freedom: An Interview with Director Steven Lake

feature story

Yes, there is a documentary about clotheslines—but it's really about liberty, the environment, and the way we choose to lead our lives.

We didn't always dry our clothes in tumble dryers—the sun and wind did the job just fine. But at some point in the middle of the 20th century, electric dryers became the new norm in the United States, and somehow clotheslines developed a bad reputation.

So, what happened? And what does the shunning of the clothesline say about our modern lifestyles? Steven Lake wanted to find out, so he did some research. And then he made a movie. Yep, that's right: He made a documentary about clotheslines.

Main

Drying for Freedom is nominally about laundry, but it's really about bigger issues like freedom, consumerism, and the environment—or, as the filmmakers put it, our right to protect the planet. In the film, we hear from members of communities that have banned clotheslines, and from the advocates who are fighting against those bans. You’ll laugh, you’ll learn something, but mostly you’ll see your laundry in a new light.

We spoke with Lake about the intersection of liberty and environmentalism, how he ever got the idea for a film about line-drying, and when the movie will be available to a broader audience.

Reviewed.com: So where’d you get the initial idea to film a documentary about dryers and clotheslines and the right to dry?

Steven Lake: The really really initial idea came from Wikipedia. I was Googling the word “laundry” I think because I was bored, and I saw some mention about clotheslines being banned in a lot of communities in the U.S., and that was all that it said. Just from reading that, that touched me as an Englishman, I guess. Everything that sort of fascinates me about the U.S., and that I kind of love about the country, or that scares me about it, or that I don’t understand…it just spoke to me on a lot of levels, which hopefully comes through in the film.

So that was the inspiration for me to look at this idea of freedom and environment in America, which are two really big topics in your country, obviously people talk about them in different ways.

RVW: In your travels, what were some of the misconceptions about line drying or hang drying that you came across?

SL: If you’re using a tumble dryer or clothesline, like with most things, you could argue why each one is better. Obviously I’m a little biased because I am pro-clothesline. But the things that people said, a lot of it was about the health issues, saying it’s healthier to not have your clothes out there, potentially picking up mold or something like this. But then if you think about the bleaching effect that the sun has on clothes, that’s a good thing. So there was that.

The biggest misconception, which you just can’t prove, is this idea that it damages property value. Which I don’t think…well it’s kind of interesting, now that I think about it, because I was going to say that I know it’s not the case, or it can’t possibly be true. But then if you tell someone that and they believe it and they take it to heart, then in effect it does become true. If too many people see that to be the case, a misconception then becomes a truth.

RVW: On that note, why do you think that there’s still such strong opposition to line drying in some of those privately managed communities?

SL: I think that the opposition comes from, one, this idea that basically in these community associations they’ve been sold this idea that the less control that you have over your home and that your neighbors have over your home, the better that’s going to be for your property value because there’s less chance that someone’s going to screw it up for you in terms of doing something wrong on their property that’s going to affect yours. So the clothesline is just one of many rules that I think they have to stick firmly to.

The biggest misconception, which you just can’t prove, is this idea that [clotheslines] damage property value.
But the clothesline is one of those things that puts you and your family on display—in two ways. One, it shows what your laundry looks like. But at the same time, it suggests this idea that you can’t afford a tumble dryer, and it raises the question of why can’t you afford a tumble dryer. And do I want to live next door to someone who can’t afford a tumble dryer? Because that might mean that they’re poor and all these other [implications]…I think that’s a reason why they would shy away from wanting to get into the world of line drying. But that’s kind of an unspoken truth, I think, and I guess that’s just my opinion. But it seems to point in that direction that it’s a class issue and a status issue.

RVW: Does the same kind of class issue exist in the UK in regards to dryers? Is line drying more common over there?

SL: I never really thought about it until I started it, but I think that it is, yeah. And the weather is a bit more unpredictable here but that doesn’t seem to stop it from happening. Here we have a lot more space built for that. And it just seems to be more intertwined with our…I don’t want to say culture here, because it was a part of your culture as well. But it didn’t get scrubbed out of us. We kept our clotheslines, but at some point, the U.S. turned more toward the dryer. Which is interesting because we’ve become electrified as much as you guys have in a lot of ways, in some ways more. Like the kettle is a lot more common here than it is for you guys.

I can’t see [line-drying bans] being a problem here like it has become in the U.S., but there are communities that are starting to act a bit like the kind of community associations that you see [in the U.S.], which is kind of worrying. That sort of form of ideal suburbia doesn’t necessarily fit in here. Nor does it in America because it’s just the image of a perfect neighborhood, but it’s not actually one. A perfect neighborhood is a good, natural community that comes together because it wants to, not because of rules. I think I got a bit off topic.

RVW: The most interesting people in Drying for Freedom were the right-to-dry advocates. What do you think compelled them to get behind something that could be seen as an obscure cause?

SL: Say for Alex Lee, I think he saw what I saw in it—and what the film tries to show—[is that] it’s a unique way of talking about the environmental issues that we face. It’s not threatening to people. It’s not scary. It’s not like saying that we want to take away your gasoline or stop you from living your life the way that you want to. It’s looking at it as a micro-study of one way that we can start stepping in the direction toward line drying. I also think he was drawn to the idea that we can’t really do much in terms of the big stuff if we’re still quabbling over the little things.

And then for Carin [Froelich], hers was more of an issue of freedom. And that she had this pride in what she was doing. And it was when that freedom was challenged that she stood up to it. Which is why you see these bills being passed, or sometimes not being passed, to stop the banning of the clothesline. Which you could [view as], is that an environmental reason, or is it a freedom reason?

RVW: Environmentalism and freedom are the two themes that stick out the most in the film. So how would you describe this film to potential viewers? Is it really about laundry? Or is it really about bigger things, like freedom, or the environment, or the ways we choose to lead our lives?

SL: I don’t think I’ve been asked it like that before. If I were to describe it, I would say that it’s an entertaining approach to the global environmental issue. And it’s presented in such a way that it is a documentary about clotheslines, which means that it’s an easy story and concept to swallow while learning about a much bigger issue. Hopefully it starts to mushroom out in terms of OK, well we look at the clothesline, then we look at the dryer, and then we look at selling the dryer to India, and then the global issue. It’s an entertaining environmental documentary about clotheslines and freedom.

RVW: Does the movie aim to demonstrate that this maybe isn’t a partisan issue, it’s something that affects everybody? Does the laundry theme add that universal feel to it?

SL: Yeah, I think so. It starts up a debate of people saying, well, it’s my right to not have a clothesline, but I should still have the right to [use one]. Despite my strong feelings towards environmentalism and the things we need to do to fix that, you can’t fix the problem by taking away more rights.

"People don’t even notice that they’re banned from line drying because people just don’t line dry."
I think it’s just trying to put the clothesline on a more even playing field. And really get people to think about, well, are these [clothesline] bans really justifiable? But then at the same time, once you look into it a little bit, you realize actually the banning isn’t the problem here. People don’t even notice that they’re banned from line drying because people just don’t line dry.

RVW: So it’s a symptom of the lifestyle.

SL: Yeah. For me, my favorite part of the film is when we look at GE, and look at its history. That speaks in volumes about a lot of other things, the way America has grown in the past half century.

RVW: At the beginning of the film, there was an expert who stated that back in the 50s, manufacturers didn’t necessarily think about the longer-term implications of the products that they were creating and selling. Do you think that’s still the case today, or have they adopted a different approach?

SL: I can’t tell because these companies do such a good job of coming across like they’re conscious of this stuff now. But you just don’t know, is that because they were caught and they need to be perceived as doing something [to change]. Or is it because they genuinely care? You can’t say that all are one [way] or all are the other. I guess it depends on each company. But either way, there seems to be strides being made in being perceived to be more conscious of the impact, and thus they are more conscious.

But again, like we look at in the film, when you make your appliances more environmentally friendly, say, and you keep marketing them like that, you make them cheaper to run. Then there’s a good chance you’re going to just sell even more appliances. Thus your appliances are still [consuming] the same amount of energy. Even though they’re more efficient, there are just more people using them.

[Environmental activist] Jeffrey Hollender, who is in the film, one of the things he said is that it’s not just about companies being less bad, they actually have to be good. And right now, it still feels that, in my opinion, they’re just being less bad. Which will work for a little while, but it’s not going to work in the long run. Those companies, the ones that aren’t changing, they’re going to find it more difficult because of the speed at which we are changing…in terms of the way that we buy and consume. The companies that can become more sustainable, more eco-friendly, I think maybe not this necessarily decade but the next, will start to see the benefits of that.

RVW: Year after year, appliances generally do end up becoming more efficient. At least in the U.S., the government puts out new standards, and the appliance makers meet them. Do you think that’s enough to make a difference? How much do you think that the efficiency increases will change in the long term?

SL: From what I’ve seen, the children of these parents who were raised on Reagan selling appliances—these are the people we find in the community associations—from everything that’s come out about global warming and environmentalism and the amount of fighting against it…it doesn’t look like they’re changing their minds anytime soon. Maybe they shouldn’t be expected to.

In my opinion, change will only come from education. The generation being born now are being born into a world where my film exists amongst millions of other pieces of media and written work and scientific study, all these things that they’re going to grow up with. I’m 26, I was born into the recycling thing. That’s just inherent in me. I think the next generation is going to be that times by like 100, hopefully, just because of how huge this topic is now. So I think, yeah, making [appliances] better is only a good thing. But the only big change will come from people who learn to be more responsible.

RVW: So it’s just as important to change the behavior as it is to change the machines.

SL: Yeah, if not more important. Behavior is a really big thing.

RVW: Alex Lee, one of the advocates in the film, mentioned that there’s a “happy medium” for appliance usage. It’s not about returning to washboards or beating your clothes on rocks in a river. What do you think that the happy medium looks like, in terms of doing laundry, or even throughout the household in general.

SL: The film is drawing that line between necessity and luxury. At what point have you gone overboard with something? For me, a dryer is not an appliance that I need in my life at all. I never have [used one] and I never will—maybe I can say that as a single man, I don’t know the responsibilities of trying to raise a bunch of kids. I guess it’s going to be different for every person and every nation. But with washing and drying, even using a laundromat is the most environmentally efficient way that you could wash and dry your clothes. This is one machine that’s being used all day, serving hundreds of different people. That, in my mind, is a happy medium.

RVW: So it’s because it’s one machine rather than many, fewer resources were put into making and shipping the machine.

SL: Yeah exactly. I should hope also that it’s more efficient because it’s also running off gas [instead of electricity]. But then it gets pretty complicated because we’re kind of immersed ourselves in this culture of cleanliness. So you could say, OK, let’s stop washing our clothes that much, and we will wear our clothes even if we get a stain on them, or something like that. We’ll just keep wearing them until they’re dirty.

"We’ve gone way beyond [necessity], into the realms of excessiveness and luxury."
But the social side of our lives, that would affect that. People are looked at differently if they’re wearing dirty clothes in what should be clean clothes situations, if that makes sense. Suddenly we have to think about that. So if you sacrifice washing your clothes every day, then you’re sacrificing a social element of your life, and maybe that’s going to make you slightly more unhappy, and then you start suffering from depression…OK that’s a really over-the-top analysis [laughs], but do you see what I mean? The stepping down from this position is slightly more complicated than just cutting off every single energy-consuming aspect of our lives. It’s so intertwined with it now.

At the same time, you can argue, OK so you’ve got an electric appliance that’s helping you do your housework. But there are studies that show that all that’s done is given people more time to do more work. So in the 50s they were selling this idea that you would buy yourself more time to do what you want. People didn’t do that. They just did more housework.

But in terms of happy medium, yes, there is one. And right now, we’re not going by that, we’ve gone way beyond, into the realms of excessiveness and luxury.

RVW: Tell us a bit about the Hanging Out Festivals.

SL: We always really wanted to set up a tour for [the film]. But the second we got the film done, we really, really, really ran out of money. So this for us was a really good way of getting the film out there. We were getting a lot of requests from people on Facebook asking, can we see the film? Where can we see it? At this point we can only show it at festivals because of the licensing we have for the music. And so we thought, well why don’t we set up our own kind of international festival. All these people on Facebook can apply for a screening in their area. These people can finally see it. It’s our way of getting the film into communities that we made the film for.

RVW: What’s the plan afterward? Wider release?

SL: Although the film has had a lot of good success in terms of press and festivals, the distribution side takes a lot longer. Right now we’re in the process of that, trying to get some kind of channels, broadcasters to bite on it. Ideally for me, I’d like to set up some kind of online release for something like Netflix.

RVW: It seems like something that could sit on Netflix very naturally next to the food documentaries, like Food Inc.

SL: Exactly. As the director, it’s my first film, we’ve been with this now for like four years. Which is fine, but I really want to be able to see it. So after the hanging out festival, my main aim is to get people to see the film worldwide on their TVs or on their computers.

For more info, including dates and locations for the Hanging Out Festivals, head to DryingForFreedom.com.